I recently rewatched Gone with the Wind, which got me thinking on other Clark Gable movies…and eventually led me to a rewatch of San Francisco, a 1936 movie about the 1906 earthquake, starring Gable, Jeannette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy–and which I probably hadn’t seen in 15 years!
Gable plays Blackie Norton, saloon owner and prominent citizen on the rough and disreputable Barbary Coast of San Francisco. Mary Blake (MacDonald) is a preacher’s daughter and new arrival to San Francisco, hoping to sing at the Tivoli Opera House but only able to find work singing in Blackie’s night club. For the first hour and a half of the movie, Mary is torn between her high principles and her attraction to Blackie, while Father Mullin (Tracy) watches in alarm—until finally the earthquake hits, and tears the city apart.
I found this movie a bit slow in spots…but I was fascinated by Blackie’s character, and it’s all worth it for the last half-hour depicting the earthquake.
I saw this before, but had completely forgotten Spencer Tracy was in the movie, even though I vividly remembered one of his lines of dialogue. It’s what most stuck with me of the entire movie, I think. Father Mullin is telling Mary that Blackie donated a pipe organ to the church, but doesn’t want it acknowledged, because he’s “as ashamed of his good deeds as most people are of their sins.”
And there we see the fascination of Blackie—because he’s one of the character types I like best, a bit like Carswell Thorne or Sage or Han Solo, acting hard and ruthless and contemptuous of everything, but with a good heart underneath. Blackie really is a rough saloon owner, not at all unwilling to break noses or hearts. Yet in the movie’s opening scene he watches firemen at a burning building, and doesn’t leave the scene until both of the children trapped on the upper floor have jumped to safety. When he runs for councilman, it’s on a platform of rebuilding the Barbary Coast so fires like that won’t happen. Although he does pause a campaign speech to slug a guy…
There’s also an odd little note I never quite figured out—Blackie apparently doesn’t drink. He’s twice seen ordering water, one time referring to it as “the usual,” which seems wildly at odds with the hard-drinking culture of the Barbary Coast (or the movies of the 1930s). The movie never says anything to explain or even discuss it, so I don’t know quite what to make of it! But it’s an interesting element.
The movie is very 1936 in its themes and values. The chief conflict is whether Mary can raise Blackie to her moral level, or whether she’ll sink to his. Blackie’s saloon (and Mary’s singing number) are extremely tame by today’s standards, so part of me can’t help asking just what would be so horrible if she did stay there…but it has to be looked at with the eyes of the time, when no doubt her costume would have been scandalous and degrading indeed. Even if it’s much more entertaining when she sings “San Francisco” at the saloon, compared to Faust at the Tivoli (which I recognized mostly because I’ve seen Faust in lots of versions of Phantom!) If you know 1930s movies, you can no doubt guess how the conflict finally resolves—but even if it was expected, I thought Gable delivered a beautifully touching moment.
I quite enjoyed Tracy’s Father Mullin, a good moral priest shown ministering to the poor and avowing his faith and calling—but still able to flatten Blackie in the boxing ring. A very 1936 character, but I wish we had more of his type in modern movies.
And finally I come to the earthquake. It’s dramatic, exciting, and impressive effects for its day. The ground opens up (probably seismically inaccurate, but no matter), buildings fall, burn or are dynamited, and Blackie wanders desperately through San Francisco with blood on one side of his face, surrounded by victims and by happy reunions, trying to find Mary in all the chaos.
The final ending, of course, is hopeful and uplifting, all the more powerful in the context of a movie made during the Great Depression. And it is impressive when you consider that the movie was made only 30 years after the earthquake (which somehow seems much longer ago!) and San Francisco really did rebound from the disaster within a generation.
If you like old movies or Clark Gable or San Francisco, I’d recommend this movie—just stick with it through some of the dragging bits, and if you fast-forward Mary singing Faust at the Tivoli…well, I’m in no position to judge!
Buy it here: San Francisco